Julian Glover's Beowulf
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe
A feat of learning and memory if not quite equal to Beowulf’s heroic exploits, at least surely equal to the yarn-spinning Anglo-Saxon Scops of old: Julian Glover for ninety minutes—with interval so as not to overtask our concentration—brings to life the epic tale of Beowulf with minimal accoutrements.
Casually he strolls into the Playhouse as if into the great royal hall of Heorot, talking to friends, telling us it is not time yet. A wooden table, two benches, a tankard, a chair and a sword await him.
On the dot of seven he begins. “Hear! Listen!” Hwaet! Weaving Old English with a redacted version of his own distilled from various sources including Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan translations and the Bristol Old Vic production directed by John David and designed by John Elvery, he recites a tale of daring-do, of monsters and men, of honour, of bravery, of worth.
Pagan and Christian, at that cusp of time when awe takes hold after much wassailing, and metaphor and imagery is bold, Beowulf serves to strengthen sinews and give example of good deeds, to praise and raise a glass or two to heroes and their mythologized prowess.
Surrounded on all sides, from pit to rafters, under smoking candlelight, Glover transports us to the very centre of Heorot. Not a young man anymore, but a twinkle-eyed wise bard he steals into our minds, bringing us up short by the occasional anachronism, which raises a laugh. Zombies, I ask you…
In everyday clothes, no costume, just the power of words, he takes on several parts: King Hrothgar picks up his heavy sword when he speaks, the others are indicated with simple means, a change of voice and a nod at the table bench.
Beowulf son of Ecgtheow comes to rescue the Danes of Shielding from the man-eating Grendel who has the stain of Cain upon him. A fearless hero with the strength of thirty men Beowulf rips off the monster Grendel’s arm at the shoulder.
This brings forth another even more impossible task. Grendel’s mother! And a cliff-hanger ending to the first half.
Refreshed by the interval, Glover / Beowulf follows her into her cavern deep under the sea and slays her there, stilling the doubting drunken voice of Unferth. There’s always one of those in any story.
Laughs are rung from an audience eager for that tension-releasing levity. Glover has them now, as he warms to his tale. Blood and gore, impossible odds, but what are heroes for… Beowulf ‘was glad’ to avenge Aeschere’s death.
Short sentences for maximum effect, long weaving phrases, bard’s tricks. Compound words, alliteration, poetic metaphors and a richness of language spill in rich spiralling pattern. Beowulf himself is laconic in his retelling of Grendel’s avenging mother’s demise.
His last deed, his third, many years later, is to fight the dragon on its plundered useless hoardweard of gold. But, inevitably, though he slays the dragon, the dragon does for him. His life has come full circle. It is time.
His men run away but for one, Wiglaf, to whom he passes on his flame. The dragon, the wyrm, is shoved off a cliff and a barrow is built there for Beowulf’s remains.
As Beowulf served his Geat people unstintingly for some fifty years, so Julian Glover has served his captive audience for over thirty years with his one-man rendition of this ancient tale from long long ago.
Today he gives his last two performances. A man of eighty takes his bow and relinquishes his place to the next generation. It is time.
His son Jamie comes on after Beowulf’s death to take up the tale. The torch is being passed on. Following in his father’s footsteps, he has a goodly example to follow, but he will have to find his own path, as his father did before him.
A young man’s zeal will refresh the lay of Beowulf and his men, of kings and dynasties. A young man’s energy will give it new impetus, but it will not replace the memory—that remains.
Julian Glover goes off for his well-earned drink. Is that enough reward? The audience, his wife, family and friends give him a standing ovation. Waes hael!
Reviewer: Vera Liber